A Citizens’ Assembly on climate change is the coward’s way out

Interesting article by Melanie McDonagh in The Spectator on citizens’ assemblies. In response to the demands of Extinction Rebellion, letters inviting 30,000 households across the UK to join a citizens’ assembly on climate change were sent out last week by an alliance of six Commons select committees, chaired by Rachel Reeves. The author (an Irish Catholic) has some alarming claims to make regarding the citizens’ assembly on the repeal of the eighth constitutional amendment (on abortion). It’s a short and interesting piece, so I won’t bother to post extracts.

All the comments posted after the Spectator article are critical of the design of such deliberative assemblies which (IMO) run the danger of bringing the entire sortition movement into disrepute.

Cook: Sortition is an element in a war on civilization

Michael Cook, editor of MercatorNet, issues a strong warning against the Extinction Rebellion movement. Here are some excerpts:

Extinction Rebellion’s loopy politics

The movement’s “Declaration of Rebellion”, a pastiche of America’s “Declaration of Independence”, states: “We hereby declare the bonds of the social contract to be null and void, which the government has rendered invalid by its continuing failure to act appropriately. We call upon every principled and peaceful citizen to rise with us.”

Declaring the “social contract” null and void is a radical step – so radical that either the author did not understand it (unlikely) or he thought that no one else would (likely). Stopping traffic? You ain’t seen nothin’ yet. This is a declaration of war on civilization.

There is but one rational, ethical, and spiritual position on climate change. None other is possible. “The ecological crises that are impacting upon this nation, and indeed this planet and its wildlife can no longer be ignored, denied nor go unanswered by any beings of sound rational thought, ethical conscience, moral concern, or spiritual belief,” the declaration says.

In a democracy, questioning an opponent’s sincerity about his convictions is the ultimate offence. Convictions are tested by rational debate, not by smearing people as venal, wicked or stupid. But this is just what XR is doing.

XR demands that countries go “beyond politics”. “Government must create and be led by the decisions of a Citizens’ Assembly on climate and ecological justice.” Why? Because “Political power in the UK is in the hands of a few elected politicians” says the “Our Demands” page on the XR website. This, of course, is true. Putting power in the hands of elected politicians is called representative democracy and it has a long and successful history of defending political and personal freedom.
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Sortition in the press

Some recent media items mentioning sortition:

Jack Hunter, a research fellow at think tank IPPR North, writes in PSE proposes to use the Northern Powerhouse to encourage greater social purpose among businesses in the region by having investment directed by an allotted citizen panel.

The Northern Powerhouse was created in Whitehall, but is increasingly something owned and championed by the north’s leaders. Because of this, there is also the opportunity to leverage the strength of the north’s history and culture, to develop a more civic role for businesses.

In a recent report, IPPR North set out how to make this happen. One idea we have put forward is the creation of a Northern Powerhouse Community Fund. We suggested that a pan-northern charitable fund should be set up, funded through a voluntary contribution of 1% of profits from northern businesses in order to help to fund voluntary and community activity in the region. Decisions about investment would be made by a panel of northern citizens, chosen by sortition.

Such a fund would give firms across the north a new opportunity to put their money where their mouth is. At the same time, it could be an opportunity to give people in the north a greater say in where money in their region goes.

Allotted citizen panels are part of Extinction Rebellion’s call to action:
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The Uses and Abuses of Sortition

Given that sortition is finally beginning to be taken seriously by politicians, academics and the mainstream media, some of us on this forum have expressed concerns about potential abuse. AndrĂ© has drawn our attention to the risk of politicians and public intellectuals using sortition to provide a patina of legitimacy to undemocratic practices — examples include Emanuel Macron’s ‘Great Debate’ — and there has been the usual concerns about the rich ‘n powerful using sortition to paper over the cracks of the electoralist oligarchy.

My own concerns are over the willingness of sortition advocates to assume that small stratified samples, in which participation is entirely voluntary, can represent the beliefs and preferences of all citizens. Leaving aside the size issue (most statisticians insist on a minimum of several hundred or even 1,000 for a representative sample) my principal concern is that the voluntary principle will significantly over-represent activists, “progressives” and those who want to change things, as oppose to the ‘silent majority’. The decision of the 2004 British Columbia Constitutional Assembly to change the voting system was overturned in the subsequent referendum, but this might well have been anticipated as only 4% of the original random sample opted for selection, thereby generating an unrepresentative sample (Warren and Pearse, 2008). My assumption here is that the decision not to participate might well be a sign of a conservative (small ‘c’) disposition.

Extinction Rebellion (XR) is a UK climate-change group which has gained a lot of publicity recently on account of its civil disobedience campaign, which brought much of  central London to a standstill in April. Their goal is zero carbon emissions by 2025, which would mean the banning of air transport and the removal of 38 million cars (both petrol and diesel) from the roads. In addition, 26 million gas boilers would need to be disconnected in six years.
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A response to Cody Hipskind, part 3 of 3

Cody Hispkind’s post is here. The previous parts of my response are here and here.

Political activism under a democratic system

A major tenet of democratic ideology is that people are the best representatives of their own interests: when provided sufficient opportunity, each person and each group of people are best able to understand and express their own values and ideas and the actions that should be taken in order to promote these values and ideas. This tenet is in contrast to “republican” ideology which shares with democratic ideology the idea that everyone’s interests should count equally, but asserts that some people (“a natural aristocracy”) are best qualified to determine what those interests are and how they should be pursued, and therefore those people should be in charge.

Elections are a republican, anti-democratic mechanism: they empower an elite to determine public policy for others (whether this elite may be called a “natural aristocracy” is a matter of taste, I guess). That elite should be able to represent itself, the democratic tenet asserts, but is quite unlikely to represent the majority of the people who are very different from it. Sortition, through the process of statistical sampling, creates a body that by representing itself would represent the public at large.

However, the capacity for self-representation is not a spontaneous, automatic capacity. Getting a group of people (or a single person, for that matter) to the state where it is able to represent its own interests effectively is not a trivial matter. From an institutional standpoint, there are clearly some preconditions that need to be met: there need to be enough resources at the disposal of the group so that reliable information can be gathered. There needs to be enough time to discuss matters, determine an agenda, fashion proposals, debate them, amend them, vote on them, evaluate the effect of the adopted policy, reconsider the matter and repeat the procedure over time.
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Sortition in the press

Some recent media items mentioning sortition:

Verena Friederike Hasel, Politico, May 16:

Germany’s democracy problem: History has made Germans reluctant to let the mob decide.

BERLIN — Germany, like many places in Europe, is badly in need of democratic rejuvenation.

But where other countries are experimenting with bringing voices from the street into the political process, Germany’s dark history casts a shadow on efforts to break down barriers to political participation.

There’s no question Germany would benefit from listening to its citizens and engaging in some talk therapy. […]

In ancient Greece, that cradle of democracy, citizens’ assemblies consisted of 500 people who were elected by lot. After serving for a year, they were replaced by others. Lately, with democracy in crisis, the Greek model has served as an inspiration for modern-day democracies. Ireland, for example, set up a citizens’ assembly in 2016. […]

The Germans have been more reluctant to tinker with their political system. But on a Saturday morning in late February, 44 people gathered in Frankfurt. The choice of venue had symbolic value. Frankfurt, nowadays known as the country’s financial hub, was home to the first freely elected German parliament in 1848. This time around, people gathered for an event called Demokratiekonvent. It’s the brainchild of Dominik Herold, a 27-year-old politics major who wanted to take a cue from Ireland, knowing full well that “Germany still has a long way to go.”
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LoĂŻc Blondiaux: “Nobody believes anymore that the system can reform itself”

An interview with LoĂŻc Blondiaux, professor of political science at the Sorbonne in Paris and a researcher at the European Center for Sociology and Political Science (CESSP) and the Center for Policy Research (CRPS) of the Sorbonne, in International Politics and Society journal:

New instruments of participatory democracy, such as citizen meetings with participants drawn by lot, are sometimes presented as the solution to the crisis of representative democracy. What does that reveal about the current state of French society?

It’s striking about the current democratic crisis in France, but also in the entire Western world, that instruments such as the sortition-based community meetings, where participants are selected at random, are spreading so successfully, and that such democratic innovations are generating high hopes. Who would have thought that political actors would advocate the idea of a third parliamentary chamber, determined wholly or partly by lot, or even the idea of replacing the Senate with a similar process? This interest in sortition attests to the great disrepute that traditional institutions of representative politics have fallen into. The same also applies to the “RIC” (rĂ©fĂ©rendum d’initiative citoyenne) promoted by the gilets jaunes, which aims to enable both citizens’ initiatives in constitutional and legal matters and the repeal of laws and the dismissal of elected representatives.

How do you explain the high expectations people have of these participatory instruments?
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